Imagine a burning house in the middle of cement mine. An empty and abandoned fun park that suddenly comes alive. An ancient, towering brick wall with no visible end. A fully functioning sweet soy-sauce factory complete with a whole bunch of short-statured workers.
This is what I had written into my screenplay for Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites, my debut feature film. And now imagine having to source, create, build and execute these scenes with a microbudget and without the use of any visual effects or animation. I was adamant all these scenes had to be created in-camera, with real actors and shot in great locations.
Every producer I spoke with in Australia would shrug and tell me it was impossible, that the project was way too ambitious—especially since finance was tight. It was impossible to even consider shooting these “big scenes” in Australia. I had to look elsewhere for support if the film was ever to be made. I turned to Indonesia, a vast and diverse archipelago nation and Australia’s closest neighbor. It was my secret weapon. My first experience with Indonesia was on a student exchange at the Jakarta Institute of Arts. A few years after that I lived and worked in Indonesia as a music video and television commercials director and knew what was possible. There is real and extraordinary talent in this country. I could also find and access the locations I needed, create and build the sets I required, find the right cast and make these crucial scenes come alive. I was sure that Indonesia would be right for all these “big” scenes. A plan was hatched.
I reached out to Jakarta-based producers Shinto Nawangsari & Arief Pribadi who embraced the challenge. Without this Indonesian team the film would have fallen over. I also enlisted the support of Prodigi-House, a Jakarta post-production facility helmed by Adi Supriadi (The Raid) who undertook the critical color-grade. I had worked with all of them on various projects in the past. Placing my trust in this network helped bring the film together. There is no formal co-production agreement between our two countries so an informal one ensued—the first ever between Australia and Indonesia. Indonesia’s best-dressed DIY indie band White Shoes and the Couples Company completed the support by providing eight tracks toward the final soundtrack.
As the title suggests, Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites centers around the main character Alvin (an Australian, Teik-Kim Pok). He spends his days working as a Japanese translator, carefully creating the illusion of everyday normality. However, he is deeply agoraphobic and obsessive, really struggling with the outside world. When his crazed and angry neighbor Virginia (Australian Vashti Hughes) goes on a crusade to rid the block of a suspected flea infestation and with a mysterious sludgy substance dripping from his ceiling, Alvin is at breaking point. He climbs into the ceiling and into his own headspace—only to be confronted by his captive emotional state Vilna (Indonesian, Dessy Fitri). The story then begins to open, move upward and outward, beyond the confines of Alvin’s apartment. Meditation and mindfulness provide Alvin with the tools to investigate his mind and slowly access various subconscious layers and experiences. Alvin must begin to trust his erratic and childlike emotions and then accept the sludgy stains that permeate his sheltered existence.
The scenes created in Indonesia were far larger and more complex than those shot in Australia. It was crucial that once Alvin entered his mind, this parallel reality was infinitely more spectacular than the already super-cluttered apartment (meticulously created in Sydney by Australian-based Japanese production designer Shin-Shin). Planning these key scenes around an Indonesia-based shoot brought an element of the magical to what is inherently an Australian story. None of these “big” scenes are recognizably or typically Australian in flavor and so they exude an otherness, which was crucial in creating the world inside Alvin’s headspace. Even the tropical sunlight with it’s humidity gives these exterior scenes a diffused look—rare in Australia, which is renowned for it’s dry, crisp and sharp sun rays.
The production was broken into blocks and I worked with a completely different team in Indonesia. Flying all the Australians up was not an option. Only myself and lead actor Teik-Kim Pok made the trip. Mas Guntur, the Jakarta based production designer was able to pick up the baton and seamlessly create the other world whilst remaining consistent to Shin-Shin’s whimsical and quirky set design. Shin-Shin did an amazing job as stuffing Alvin’s small apartment with as many panda-themed items and seventies kitchen appliances as possible. The scenes in Indonesia had to work with the same aesthetic temperament but also out-do them as well. Mas Guntur delivered. Him and his team—affectionately known as “The Mams”—were able to build the interior and exterior house in difficult and remote locations and then progressively burn them down. They were also able to create a fully-functioning sweet soy-sauce factory complete with conveyor belt. Indonesian DoP Hari Bowo was able to efficiently transfer the shallow depth of field and interior lighting created by Australian DoP Vanna Seang. Production Manager Harold Utu successfully navigated location permits for the seemingly impossible and hard to access—including the working fun park (which we emptied) and the ancient palace wall.
The final film credits department heads, crew & cast from both Australia & Indonesia. By leveraging established networks and thinking outside the box I was able to bring these “big scenes” to life. For moviemakers working on limited budgets, I would strongly suggest looking for partners outside a well-worn path. It wouldn’t have mattered where Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites was shot though—it’s about partnering heavily with people who are supportive of your vision and approach. The exotic locations and cast also happen to add to the overall production value by layering ideas with a distinct flavor. Sweet soy-sauce never tasted so good. MM
Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites is screening in select events and theaters.